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In Japan, one beer could equal three years in jail

Here’s something to think about if you have a drink and decide to take a drive while living in Japan: As little as one beer could land you in jail for up to three years.

Japan revised its traffic laws last September, imposing harsher punishments than in the past, with up to three years in jail and $4,400 in fines for having a blood alcohol content between 0.03 and 0.079. Maximum jail time for DWI (blood alcohol content of 0.08 or greater) under the revised law is five years in jail or a fine not to exceed about $8,800.

Additionally, passengers in vehicles operated by a drunken driver and those who provide alcohol to someone who drives drunk also can be punished.

The need to recognize the changes to the law and stricter enforcement by Japanese police has never been greater, Col. Daniel Rogers, the U.S. Forces Japan Judge Advocate, said in December.

"One drink is too many," he said. "The old days when you figure out who was the least drunk to drive home are gone."

Rogers cited an incident in which a servicemember on Okinawa had one beer in his home while doing housework. A few hours later, when he went off base to run errands, Japanese police stopped him at a checkpoint, and he was cited for driving under the influence with a BAC of 0.039.

"In almost every instance the person involved believed they were able to still drive," Rogers said. "If you have had even one drink in the past four to five hours, you are too drunk to be on the road in Japan."

The revised traffic law also applies on base, but jurisdiction in the case of serious alcohol-related offenses would be determined on a case-by-case basis, said Dale Sonnenberg, USFJ deputy staff judge advocate. However, 0.03 is the baseline for driving under the influence of alcohol on base, like it is off base, Sonnenberg said. Each service component in Japan sets minimum sanctions for DUIs on base, he said.

"If you have a drink or two at dinner, don’t be driving on base," Sonnenberg said.

Japanese police typically use the wand — a device which one blows in — to measure blood-alcohol content, said James Brophy, USFJ force protection officer.

Refusing this test, under the revised traffic laws, can result in maximum confinement of three months or a fine of up to about $4,400, he noted.

"If they offer it and you refuse, you don’t avoid getting convicted of drunk driving," Sonnenberg said. "They will use other evidence to obtain a conviction if one is warranted."

For any of the alcohol-related offenses, jail time would be imprisonment with forced labor. "You would go to Japanese prison versus" a local jail, Sonnenberg said.


Japanese traffic laws at a glance

If you drink and drive, take a look at what it could cost you:

  • Driving while intoxicated (DWI) — Blood alcohol content of 0.08 or greater: Confinement not exceeding five years or a fine not exceeding about $8,800, depending on the current yen rate.
  • Driving under the influence (DUI) — BAC of 0.03 to 0.07999: Confinement not exceeding three years or fine not exceeding about $4,400.
  • Providing an intoxicated person with a vehicle — The same penalties for DWI and DUI apply.
  • Providing a person with alcohol who subsequently gets a DUI or DWI: DWI — Maximum jail time of three years or a fine of about $4,400 or less. DUI — Maximum jail time of two years or a fine not exceeding about $2,650.
  • Riding as a passenger in a vehicle operated by a person intoxicated: DWI — Maximum jail time of three years or a fine of about $4,400 or less. DUI — Maximum jail time of two years or a fine not exceeding about $2,650.
  • Rejected BAC breath test — Maximum jail time of three months or a fine not exceeding about $4,400.
  • Hit and run — Maximum jail time 10 years or fine of about $8,800 or less.

Source: U.S. Forces Japan, Japan National Police Agency

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